Radiolab's Jad Abumrad Tells Missoula Not To Fear The 'Gut Churn'

Nov 3, 2016

Jad Abumrad, co-host and creator of Radiolab, visited Missoula for a couple reasons.

"I was especially psyched to be here because I passed through here about 20 years ago, and it was an amazing time. And I have some really good friends here. So I’m here just to talk about the process of making radio, but also just to catch up with a few people,” Abumrad said.

He was on his way to an informal master class on the University of Montana campus.

“Gotta say hi to her. Hi! How are you? So good to see you … You look exactly the same, what goes on ...”

Before Jad delivered his presentation called "Gut Churn" to a full room at the Dennison Theatre, he had an open discussion with students and radio pros about his unique approach to the field.

He spent that hour answering questions about how he sees radio evolving, the relationship with his Radiolab co-host Robert Krulwich, and tips on how to get a good interview.

In the meet and greet VIP area before the show, folks had a chance to chat it up with Jad, like Todd Skibbe.

“I, it hit me today that I might be a little star-struck when I saw him, you know."

Cole Grant: Were you?

"Yeah, I was, haha. absolutely,” Skibbe said.

Radiolab's Jad Abumrad with fans during a meet & greet before his Oct. 23 talk in Missoula.
Credit Freddy Monares

Some traveled hours to be there, like Brandon McGuire and Hannah Pauli.

“I came from Helena Montana," Mcguire said.

"I drove up from Livingston, because I won tickets on the Montana Public Radio Facebook page," said Hannah Pauli.

From what I could tell, Jad got a chance to visit with just about everyone.

“We chatted a little bit about how our philanthropic roots came from listening to NPR when we were young,” Pauli said.

Jad’s presentation, "Gut Churn," was basically a live Radiolab episode, exploring hurdles he’s encountered as a maker of radio, how he’s dealt with those hurdles, and the feeling of gut churn associated with all that.

Finding his voice for the radio was a challenge for him early on. He wondered whether he should go for sounding like Walter Cronkite, or maybe Ira Glass, before realizing he should probably sound like himself.

“It’s great to hear somebody who has one of the most recognizable voices on the airwaves speaking through his process of finding his own voice,” Mike Schaedel said.

He talked about growing up in Tennessee, where he cooked up film scores for imaginary films at night in his room. Then went on to producing Radiolab in the early 2000’s for AM radio in New York to an audience of maybe no one, since WNYC dramatically cut down the power to their AM transmitter at 8:00 p.m., when the show aired.

He talked about getting lost in a forest of doubt, and coming out the other side victorious.

One of those times was when he was working on a story involving colors, and how different creatures see the rainbow. There was an impending deadline for the story, and he had to think of something pretty quickly. He managed to conjure up a choir within a day, and conducted them to sonically illustrate the colors of a rainbow through the eyes of different creatures.

It was then he realized he could do just about anything.

But what is "gut churn?" After seeing the show, Jake Birch thinks:

“It’s an essential part of the creative process. It’s a part of the machine that takes something from an idea, or a loosely held together sweater of an idea, and turns it into something more meaningful,” he said.

“It’s mile 24 of a marathon. That you’re really, really pulling for the deepest part of your body to keep going,” Shelby Handlin said.

Jad sees it as an ancient physiological response to stress, be it for your life or for your story.

As a whole, Micah Sewell says:

“It gave me a lot to think about for my own creative journey, and how I want to embrace that uncomfortable feeling, and go forward, and kind of live in that moment, and use it to create something.”